Why You Should Trust the Press and What It Has To Do with Freedom of Speech

Ellie Retzlaff, Managing Editor, Arts & Entertainment

In the midst of the second day of school and my frantic check for Jeff Erickson’s email to revisit the schedule for the week (which I had neglected to remember), I received an email from the New York Times with my “Wednesday Morning Briefing.” 

Typically, when I read these emails, or really the news in general, I find the same central themes: Donald Trump, COVID-19, ongoing climate change and more about the Trump administration. It seems that wherever one gets their news, whether it be FOX, The Washington Post, the New York Times, or even the Sun Sailor, one can find an aggressive amount of political commentary from one side or the other. 

But let me ask you this, when you think of “political commentary” in the media, what do you think of?

It’s possible that a few of these words came to mind: biased, polarized, untrustworthy, or even “fake news.”

While at school, we are taught to be wary of what we are reading and not to trust everything that is online. Within the last four years, a singular term, “fake news,” arguably popularized by Donald Trump, has, to some extent, created a deep mistrust of the media that goes far and beyond simply being cautious. 

All one has to do is look at Breezes itself, that has published articles like “Your Words, Not Mine: Fake News Epidemic” from February 2017, followed by “Reading Responsibly: A Guide to Navigating the News” in September 2017, and, even as recently as March 2020, “Is the News Trustworthy? How News Sources Stretch the News for Views.”

There seems to be a need to comment on why the news is untrustworthy. Not to mention the fact that in these articles, and in many articles outside of Breezes, the use of the word “news” itself is incredibly generalized. With over thousands of journals, newspapers, websites, and organizations that deliver news, how can we possibly categorize all news sources into this bubble of dishonest, biased and divided? 

Furthermore, dishonesty, bias and division exist everywhere, from businesses to schools, and yet there is an extreme focus on the press. Some people may argue that this focus is due to the press having more ability to manipulate the public than a business or school might, as the press is often a vital source of information. But I would like to argue that this focus on the press and its potential for deception is a different kind of manipulation. It is manipulation by political leaders to try to defame the press because they don’t like what is being said of them. 

While this may seem obvious and most people think that they are aware of the leaders trying to do this (examples include blatant cries of “fake news” by Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman Maria Zakharov or the President of Venezuela, Nicholas Maduro), it still has drastically impacted the world’s view of the press. 

Take this local example: in America, many of us may think that Donald Trump crying “fake news!” hasn’t convinced us of anything. But, if you look at the increase in and repetitive nature of the conversation over news bias within the last four years, it seems as though there is a greater amount of public uncertainty about whether we can actually trust the media. Included in this conversation are the three Breezes articles about the trustworthiness of the news, all published after the 2016 election. 

It is not as if bias or misinformation in the news is anything new, in fact, it’s been around for years, centuries even. 

The Smithsonian Magazine, in an article titled “The Age-Old Problem of ‘Fake News’,” points out that the infamous Sons of Liberty leader Samuel Adams would often write and publish work that was not based on fact. 

So why is there such a focus on bias now? Why are students claiming to only trust BBC or NPR or CNN (from the Breezes Article “Is the News Trustworthy? How News Sources Stretch the News for Views”)? Is it possible that the delusional ranting of politicians about how the news is corrupt and journalists lie actually has an effect on us? 

I think that it does, simply because when we hear something over and over again, we tend to subconsciously consider it more. This is the same basic phenomenon of advertisement and why companies like Coca-Cola spend over four billion dollars on advertising per year. In short, it works. And, the fact that people are hearing the association of “news” and “fake” together from their government, something that we want to believe we can trust, is particularly influential in getting the public to question the validity of the press. 

But what is so crucial to understand about this problem is that by being overly cautious about trusting any of the media and by writing articles propagating the idea that there is somehow more bias in the press these days when there is no strict evidence to prove the level of bias in major news organizations is any different, or really just trying to hold the “news” to an absurdly high pedestal in which there is no opinion and just facts, we are only hurting ourselves. 

The news and the diversity of opinion in the news is essential to understanding multiple perspectives. We cannot simply cut off news outlets because they contain a political dialogue. To do so would be demeaning to the work of a journalist and would be based on a broad assumption that all journalists or news outlets have some sort of agenda. Though it is good to be cautious, it is also imperative to actually read the news (and a lot of it) because it is the best way to be informed. 

So when I opened my “Wednesday Morning Briefing” from the New York Times and began reading about PEN America gaining a new leader, Ayad Akhtar, and how it is a literary and human rights organization, I was intrigued.

On their website, PEN America describes themselves as “the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide.”

This is what really interested me. We often hear about freedom of speech on an individual basis, how a singular person is free to express their opinions, but I personally had never thought about “free expression” and how it relates to organizations, or rather the news and journalists. 

After reading an article by Jennifer Egan, the former leader of PEN America, about “Why PEN America is Suing Donald Trump,” I can better put into words how pivotal it is that we as individual readers shift our focus from a general mistrust of the media to an embrace of the freedom of expression to which journalists are entitled. 

Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of democracy, and by rejecting a whole organization or news outlet for being “biased,” we are making assumptions that may lead to a loss of free expression and, as Egan puts it, “[making] political journalism a more dangerous practice.”

If you are interested in this issue there are plenty of other articles that discuss it in more depth. Here are a few to get you started: 

  1. “The real news on ‘fake news’: politicians use it to discredit media, and journalists need to fight back” by The Conversation
  2. “Destroying Trust in the Media, Science, and Government has Left America Vulnerable to Disaster” by Brookings 
  3. “Who Will Tell the Truth About the Free Press?” by the New York Times

Happy reading!